Best of Both Worlds: Medicine in Literature!

Written by Dr. Anjali Mediboina

I love reading. It’s always great to see the medical field represented, no matter the genre. It’s also a way to see how the medical field has evolved over time – I remember when I was reading A Recipe for A Perfect Wife by Karma Brown (published 2019), the main character was reading a journal entry by the previous owner of her house, Nellie, who was a housewife in the 1950s. Nellie became pregnant and was told by a friend to take thalidomide for the morning nausea. Now, if you’re done with pharmacology, you’d know thalidomide was discontinued due to its teratogenicity (phocomelia – “seal” limbs). This was so cool to read because it proves how well-researched the book was. So, here is a list of books with amazing medical rep, one to represent each subject!

1. Anatomy – Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Ok, so, technically this could be considered a book to represent Surgery as well, but the name cinched it for me. The first book in a duology, Anatomy follows Hazel – a girl with the dream of becoming a surgeon. Unfortunately, she lives in the year 1815, so the dream is a bit impossible for her to achieve, and how she does so forms the rest of the plot. The book was amazingly written, and is really well researched, with the anatomy pretty accurately described; the book also talks about grave robbers (one of the main characters is a grave robber, or a “Resurrectionist”), who were a huge problem in England in the 18th and 19th centuries; anatomists would pay a pretty penny for dead bodies to study. For all the anatomy lovers out there – I totally recommend these books (the duology). It’s also great for historical romance lovers, who are looking for a fresh take on the genre.

2. Biochemistry – Genesis by Robin Cook

If you’re into medical thrillers, then you must know Dr. Robin Cook. He’s an American doctor and has written about 40 books to date. Genesis is the 12th book (published in 2019) in the Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series, with the titular characters being medical examiners/pathologists in New York. Each book in the series can be read as a standalone.

There was a case in 2017, where a genealogist named Barbara Rae-Venter used genetic genealogy to try and link the suspected killer to 2 bodies found in 1985 and then 2 more bodies found in 2000 (a.k.a. The Bear Brook murders). However, the real identities were finally confirmed in 2019, after a family used an ancestry website to search for their daughter (one of the missing bodies). Similar techniques are now being used to help identify bodies and their killers. This is the basis of Genesis.

Fast-paced, and definitely novel (pun intended, heh) in content, I really enjoyed this thriller, and would surely recommend it for people looking for a quick but entertaining, and informative read.

3. Pathophysiology – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book is an intricately written, extremely well-researched book that delves into the life of Henrietta Lacks, with the cells of whom scientists were able to find the cure to polio, cloning, gene mapping, cancer and even the after-effects of an atom bomb. And yet, no one knew who Henrietta was, not even her own children.

I don’t think I can say more than that, except for the fact that everyone should read this book – not only do you learn about the way a few cells can lead to such amazing discoveries, but it also unearths the horrifying exploitation by the pharmaceutical industry and the importance of ethical research.

4. Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban (2019)/The Truth Pill by Dinesh Singh Thakur and Prashant Reddy Thikkavarapu (2022)

I shall confess, I have not read these books, but as I was searching for books related to pharmacology, these two really caught my eye and I can’t wait to read them.

Ranbaxy was one of India’s top pharmaceutical companies until Dinesh Thakur (the author of The Truth Pill) found out that the company was falsifying drug reports in 2004-2005. He was forced to resign in 2005, after which he went to the USA and filed a report with the FDA. Bottle of Lies was written in 2019 by investigative journalist Katherine Eban, and tells the whole story, from start to finish, from the lens of an outsider; while The Truth Pill is a first-hand account, and also offers real-time data from the government records. I hear that both are extremely well-researched and written, and go into great detail about the dark side of pharmaceutical industries. At this point, I really commend Dinesh Thakur and Rajinder Kumar, who were the original whistleblowers – it couldn’t have been easy, and I can’t even imagine the consequences they dealt with. These books are a must-read in my opinion. In a day and age where even kids are becoming accustomed to taking a variety of tablets, we, especially as doctors, need to be aware of the unethical malpractice behind the making and marketing of all these pills.

5. Microbiology – Legend by Marie Lu

Ok, so, technically, this book isn’t purely microbiology, and okay, fine, maybe there are more microbiology-esque books out there, but this series is really good! And it also features a mysterious plague reminiscent of the bubonic plague, and, honestly, that’s all I can tell you without spoiling too much.

Legend by Marie Lu is a dystopian trilogy that is perfect for Hunger Games fans, and has amazing commentary on class, race and biological warfare – in fact, the author was inspired by the Eugenics Movement in Korea and the Tiananmen Massacre in China, which you can totally see being represented in the book.

6. Forensic Medicine – The Apprentice by Tess Gerritson (2002)

I love forensic thrillers, and Rizzoli and Isles is my favorite forensic TV show of all time. Imagine my happiness when I found out that the TV series is based on the book series by Tess Gerritson!

The forensic techniques used by Dr. Maura Isles are described in depth, and Det. Rizzoli and Dr. Isles are hands down one of the best crime-solving duos out there. This book is the second in the series, but it’s also the book where Dr. Isles makes her debut, and you can totally jump in without reading the first one.

7. ENT – You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

This book is an all-time favorite of mine. The main character is deaf, and uses American sign language to communicate. The entire book is a brilliant representation of what it’s like to have a disability, and also shows the sign language used by Julia (the main character) via illustrations. It’s Young Adult (YA) genre but honestly, books have no age barriers and I truly think anyone would be able to love and connect with the characters. Julia is also a graffiti artist, and you can learn about that art form as well!

8. Ophthalmology – A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave

If you’ve seen Jessica Alba-starrer The Eye, this book will definitely feel familiar, but trust me when I say, the blind main character getting an eye transplant is the only similarity between the two. The story of A Killer Harvest is based on the theory of cellular memory, i.e., the theory that even after death, our cells still have memories. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but it’s worth it!

9. Community Medicine – Chaos at Crescent City Medical Center by Judith Lucci

Yet another medical thriller, it’s very engaging and almost immediately you’re thrown into the world of Alex Destephano in the busy Crescent City Medical Center in New Orleans. I chose this book to represent PSM because despite being a mystery thriller at the core, the book also presents the behind-the-scenes stuff of hospital administration and healthcare policies, and what happens when half the staff are unexpectedly ill in a bustling hospital.

It’s a series, and this book is the first – I personally can’t wait to read the rest!

10. General Medicine – Next Patient, Please by Dr. Brijeshwar Singh

I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve heard a lot about it. General Medicine is an important specialty, but I always feel that empathy is one of the most important things about being in the field – you see a wide variety of patients from different backgrounds, and the most empathetic doctors always have a loyal following of patients. Gen. Med. also sees a lot of life and death, which is the main concept of Next Patient, Please. Dr. Brijeshwar Singh is a trauma surgeon, and each of the 38 stories deal with 38 different ailments and the resilience shown by the patients in the stories. I will definitely be reading this book and so should you.

11. Psychiatry – Made You Up by Francesca Zappia/The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

I have two book recommendations for Psychiatry. The first, Made You Up, follows Alex, a high-school student with paranoid schizophrenia, and it’s amazingly written. Zappia gives us a firsthand account of a person living with schizophrenia, and in one scene of the book, even we as the reader, can’t discern what is real and what a figment of our mind is. It’s incredibly disconcerting and reiterates the importance of dealing with patients with mental health disorders with empathy and kindness.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein’s fictional wife, Elizabeth. In the olden days, “hysteria” was a common umbrella term unfortunately misused by many to throw women in asylum, and this book touches upon it, while also focusing on victims of emotional and physical abuse.

Both books are a must read in my opinion!

12. General Surgery – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

And on the topic of Frankenstein, what better way to represent Surgery than the OG of gothic horror, Frankenstein? While the story is nothing new, the book is a classic, and the only reason I read it was because I learned what a boss lady Mary Shelley was. I mean, this book was written in 1818 – a time when, as I said, female doctors were not recognized or encouraged. Not to mention, Frankenstein is regarded to be one of the first science-fiction novels, a genre which is extremely male-oriented. In fact, when the book was first published, many disregarded it because of Mary Shelley’s gender. Despite all the backlash, Frankenstein is an iconic novel and is a great commentary on the ethics of medicine and surgery.

13. OBGY – Sacrifice by Sharon J. Bolton

Fun fact: I actually read a condensed version of this book as a part of a short story collection my friend brought to school. And for some reason, this book just stayed in my mind, but I couldn’t remember the name of the book! After years of searching, I finally found it and re-read it.

Sacrifice perfectly represents OBGY – the main character, Tora, is a gynecological surgeon. While burying her horse, she stumbles upon a body buried in her fields, with strange Norse runes carved on her back. I won’t say more than that, but the thriller is a perfect blend of mystery and mythology, with some really great insight into obstetric trauma and the ordeal women go through during childbirth.

14. Pediatrics – Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This book made me feel feelings, and will make you emotional too. Wonder is about August, a boy with a facial deformity, and the whole book is about what happens when he finally goes to public school, and told from the perspectives of August, his sister and her boyfriend, and his classmates. Sweet, emotional, and once again, reiterates the importance of empathy in this unkind world from a child’s perspective.

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